Captain Lord Henry Challoner is a young viscount who’s left his ambition on the plains of South Africa. Wounded in the First Boer War, he’s come home and wishes he were anywhere else, until his desperate father sends him to Puddling-on-the-Wold to rusticate and recalibrate. How can Henry have any fun without any alcohol, or worse yet, any women? Kept under house arrest under the watchful eye of his draconian housekeeper and earnest local vicar, he’s bored enough to begin speaking to sheep until he literally stumbles across schoolteacher Rachel Everett.
Rachel knows she’s not on Henry’s improvement plan, but can’t seem to avoid or repel him no matter what she does to keep him at arm’s length. Could it be that she quite enjoys being in his arms, even if it’s against all the Puddling Rehabilitation Rules? Can Rachel circumvent the town fathers and Henry escape his personal jailors and demons?
Maggie Robinson’s new Cotswold Confidential series is set in the sleepy, picturesque village of Puddling-on-the-Wold which, for the past seventy-odd years, has provided a rather unusual service for the members of the nobility by taking in its wayward sons and daughters and, through a strict and personally tailored régime, rehabilitating them.
The hero of Schooling the Viscount is Captain Lord Henry Challoner, son and heir to the Marquess of Harland. Having an income of his own that gave him financial independence, Henry purchased a commission against the wishes of his father, but has, at twenty-five, recently left the army after six years’ service. Partially lame (he was shot in the foot while serving in South Africa) and partially deaf in one ear (thanks to a too-close cannon blast) he returned to England and plunged into an endless round of debauchery in an attempt to forget the brutality and indignities of war. His relationship with the marquess has never been easy; Henry knows he’s a disappointment to his autocratic father, who wants him to settle down and start learning his responsibilities, but Henry isn’t ready for that. After six years of war, it’s reasonable that he’d want to let off some steam, but when, after one particularly spectacular round of dissipation, he brings home not one, but two ladies of the night, it’s the last straw for the marquess and he packs Henry off to Puddling-on-the-Wold for a month of healthy food, exercise, no booze and absolutely, categorically NO women.
Henry has been in Puddling for a week – twiddling his thumbs, having tea each day with the vicar and basically going out of his mind with boredom – when he decides to deviate from his prescribed walking route and thus comes upon the local school. But even better than that, he encounters the teacher, the luscious, dark-haired, pink-cheeked Miss Rachel Everett – and can’t resist kissing her.
The whole town is privy to the treatment plans devised for their “Guests”, so Rachel is well aware that she is not supposed to have anything to do with the handsome young viscount, and knows what led to his being sent to Puddling. Surprised by his kiss, she allows herself to enjoy it before slapping him and telling him to leave her alone – but fate (and Henry) has other ideas, and it’s not long before they bump into each other – literally – again. And again.
While Henry’s initial attraction to Rachel is probably a result of his not having seen a young woman for some time, it’s not long before he begins to appreciate her for what she is – intelligent, loyal, kind – and completely different to many of the empty-headed socialites he has previously associated with. Through his growing friendship with her and her father – who fought in the Crimea – Henry starts to regain his confidence and to believe that perhaps he isn’t such a waste of space as his father seems to think he is. While the book is generally humorous and light-hearted in tone, Ms. Robinson also takes a look at the plight of soldiers coming home from war who are expected to return to their old lives as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened and nothing has changed. Henry has not only suffered physical injury, but he is plagued by nightmares, and realises that there is a need to help those, like him, who have suffered mental trauma as well:
“How is it that people can feel sorry about my foot but not about my brain? Quite frankly, I think it’s more injured than the rest of me. It just doesn’t show.”
And as part of his rehabilitation is that he must undertake to do some sort of what we’d call Community Service, Henry decides that:
“I want to do something for soldiers like me who come home and can’t sleep. We’re made to feel ashamed, you know, even by others who served.”
The author very subtly incorporates the slightly darker themes into her story without any sudden tonal shifts, and there is a lot of shrewd observation beneath the flirtatious banter and slapstick humour (I did have to ask myself how many times Henry could get hit on the head without sustaining serious injury!).
Both central characters are likeable people who are easy to relate to. Henry is an adorable rogue; he’s always looking for a way around the rules, but soon begins to appreciate the benefits of a clear head and experiences a fair amount of personal growth throughout the course of the story. Rachel is a level-headed young woman and doesn’t, at first, believe that a man as good-looking and charming as Henry can genuinely be interested in her – and even if he is, continuing to associate with him risks Puddling’s very livelihood, as one word of censure from Harland among his acquaintance could lead to the loss of the wealthy clients from which the village derives its income. But Henry is persistent, resourceful and willing to fight for what he wants, especially when his father insists that a country schoolteacher is no match for a future marquess.
I enjoyed the book and will be looking out for more in this series, but the number of Americanisms dotted throughout this one kept pulling me out of the story. The most glaringly annoying ones here are the frequent use of the word “pants” – men in England don’t wear pants (other than as underwear), they wear trousers – and Rachel having to “grade papers”. Teachers here don’t “grade papers”, we “mark work” or “mark books”.
Other than that though, Schooling the Viscount is a deftly-written, entertaining story of a wounded man learning to take control of his life, finding his place in the world and broadening his horizons. It’s not what one would call a page turner, but it’s charming and funny, the central romance is well-paced with plenty of sensual moments, and there’s a sweet secondary romance and a nicely drawn and engaging supporting cast. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for something light-hearted with a bit of steam on the side.